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September 8, 2019

A battle that cannot be lost


September 8, 2019

As Pakistan continues its struggle to eradicate polio, more cases have surfaced in the country, one from Qilla Abdullah in Balochistan and the other from Lakki Marwat in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. We should remember that in Qilla Abdullah two female vaccinators were killed earlier this year while out on polio vaccination duty. The cases of polio are statistically higher in Qilla Abdullah than in other parts of the country at least in part because of refusals to vaccinate by parents. On Friday, the Pakistan government announced that to tackle the polio problem, it would be taking major new measures. One of these is to set up 100-line call centres in various parts of the country where parents can get in touch with their complaints about vaccination campaigns. In turn, the polio centres would attempt to help educate parents about the potentially crippling impact of polio on their child’s life.

Health experts say children under five need multiple doses of the vaccine to be protected against polio, a disease that can leave a child crippled or even prove fatal. Refusals had been a consistent problem for Pakistan and we have not yet been able to overcome them. Pakistan along with Afghanistan is one of only two countries in the world unable to wipe out polio. With the reports of two new cases, the tally for this year has risen to 60. This is five times higher than the previous year when 12 cases were reported and 7.5 times higher than in 2017. Pakistan had stood at the brink of winning its battle against polio but then slipped badly. The reasons for this setback have been discussed in detail. But quite obviously urgent measures are needed to combat the virus. According to health officials in the field, there are multiple children aged under five in some regions who have not received even a single dose of polio drops.

The question is why there has been such a sharp rise in cases. Last month, an urgent meeting of top officials was held to discuss the polio situation and what to do about it. Apart from this threat to our own children, the presence of polio is also an embarrassment for Pakistan with the WHO already declaring a polio emergency in the area. Pakistan also remains under polio travel restrictions which require every visitor to carry a polio vaccination card whenever he or she leaves the country. The truth is we are essentially failing our own children. The drastic rise in cases this year is alarming. It now seems extremely unlikely that Pakistan will be able to banish polio in the very near future. Officials need to ask what went wrong after 2017 and why there has been a surge in cases despite the government’s repeated commitment to get rid of a disease that has already caused disability for hundreds of thousands in the country over the years.

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